OPINION: The Real Reason why Ageism is Damaging the Modern Workplace

I recently got into a debate with a group of older adults within the comments of a LinkedIn post. I thought that sort of drama was reserved for Facebook, but regardless, it got me thinking.

The post I commented on was from a business leader who was upset by what she was seeing in the hiring process regarding ageism. She mentioned that older adults have a hard time finding new jobs because companies are looking for young talent. What struck me is that she said older adults are hearing that they are “over-experienced” for the roles they apply for but that “over-experienced” is really just a code word for “too old.”

I was thrown off guard because I have turned down candidates for legitimately being over-experienced. It is 100% reasonable to turn down someone who is genuinely too experienced for what the role calls for. At the very least, it is reasonable to pose a question to the interviewee, “You seem overqualified for this role. Why does it interest you?”

Why “Over-qualified” Candidates Apply

If the candidate is aware of her overqualifications but wants the job anyway, one of two things are at play: either she is desperate for a job and will leave your company once she finds something better, or she wants to reduce her responsibilities.

Both of those “excuses” are reasons I might not want to hire someone (depending on the role). I don’t want to hire someone who I am not going to be able to pay fairly or give enough responsibility to because they will eventually leave and I am in the business of long-term careers. If I am expecting the position I’m hiring for to grow, I don’t want to hire someone who is looking for a job with fewer responsibilities. I’m looking for someone who is looking for a career advancement move, not just a job.

Unpopular opinion: the real reason ageism is damaging the modern workplace is that people are afraid of it. No business wants to be the one who only hires computer savvy twenty-somethings, or only hires people with 20+ years of experience because they don’t want to be called ageist. However, you still have to hire the right people.

Let’s pretend that you are looking around and noticing that your marketing team is filled with twenty-something ladies. Then, you start hiring for a role and your top candidates are a 50-year-old man who has great experience but has been unemployed for five months and a 22-year-old female recent college graduate. Technically, the 50-year-old has more experience, but he was paid six figures at his last job and you are only able to pay 40k. He’s desperate enough to take the 40k. You have to consider the fact that if you hire that older man, unless he proves otherwise, he is not going to be happy in his role and will likely only stay around until he finds something better. If you hire that young woman, she’ll be operating at the proper pay range and will grow into her new career. You won’t have to hire for that role again for a long time.

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Employee Longevity

Some companies may worry about hiring older people because they expect employee longevity. A company who is looking for candidates who want to develop entire 20+ year careers with the company won’t hire people who are within a few years of retirement age.

It may be worth your company’s time and money to hire that person who plans on retiring in five years for the sake of learning from them. Someone who is five years from retirement but looking for a career advancement move likely has a wealth of knowledge to share. However, it is just as understandable and should not be frowned upon for a company to say, “someone who is preparing to retire is not what we want for this role – we are looking for a long-term dedication.”

Reasons to Turn Down an Older Candidate

“Being old” is never a good reason to not hire someone, but there are reasons to not hire someone that may relate to their age. For instance, an elderly person who does not own a computer and is looking for a job will not be considered all that hireable in 2019. However, if a company turns her down, they will be labeled as ageist, when in reality, they cannot afford to hire a candidate who can’t use a computer.

The important distinction to make is that hiring managers can’t turn down an application simply due to age. If it is not clear from that same woman’s application that she cannot use a computer, the company needs to give her the same fair chance as every other candidate, regardless of age. If during the interview process it becomes clear that the older candidate doesn’t know your systems, but the younger candidate does, you should not be shamed for choosing the younger candidate.

Older adults who are looking for jobs in 2019 need to be adaptable. You need to know that there are certain systems in your field that hiring managers look for. Even if those systems didn’t exist when you were interviewing for jobs 15 years ago, you have to learn them now to make yourself hireable.

Youthful Replacements

False ageism accusations can rise to the surface when young hires appear to be replacing older employees. I believe it is worth stating that there may be times when a younger replacement is simply coincidental.

There also may be times where a company can no longer afford to pay six figures to an older employee, so he is let go and replaced with a recent college graduate at a fraction of the cost. AND, there are certainly times where older employees refuse to adapt to new technologies and companies are forced to replace them with adaptable young hires.

Those are the sorts of cases where companies are labeled as ageist, but really they are just making decisions for the business and not for the sake of “being nice” for their employees.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Think Before you Argue

All I’m saying is that I think LinkedIn professionals should think before arguing in the comments section. There’s a side to every argument that you don’t see, and it doesn’t pay to be stubborn and to make assumptions. Just because a company is looking for someone who is planning to spend 10+ years at a company and who will accept a starting salary of 40k does not mean that they are ageist. It works backwards, too. Just because a company is looking for someone with 20+ years of experience and expects to pay six figures does not mean they are ageist.

Chances are that in the first scenario, the company will hire a recent college grad, while in the second, they will hire someone in their 40’s or 50’s. Why should that require an ageism lawsuit?